I’m coming to the end of this latest round of reviews, though this post is less objective than the others I’ve written — quite an achievement considering how often I forcefully insert myself into these rambling monologues. This will inevitably strike many people as being obnoxiously reflective; narcissistic, even. Even though I aspire to keep myself out of these reviews — and fail utterly — this will have to be self-referential to the point of sounding like a diary entry. Forgive me, but sometimes my reactions to movies cannot just be reduced to whether I liked the photography or not. Sometimes they reveal things about myself as all good — or bad — art will, and to explain why this is the case I have to spend ::checks word count:: 5200 words talking about that least interesting of subjects: me. If that sounds like a slog, feel free to skip this. But I’m compelled to explain why 2012 was almost the year I left the internet for good, and what brought me back from the brink.
Biggest Gulf Between Critical Opinion and My Own Reaction of the Year: Amour
Lauded by most as a masterpiece, Michael Haneke’s sober depiction of the end of a relationship is certainly intelligent and powerfully wrought, but Amour left me unexpectedly cold. Considering how pretty much everyone else found it painfully moving — almost too much so — this perplexed me and made me wonder, as such things often do, if I was watching it wrong, or if I’m emotionally immature, or merely ignorant of some aspect of Haneke’s artistry. The latter may well be true; I’ve only seen Cache and thought it was a superb thriller, but this restricted awareness of his themes meant that the only thing that struck me as being “classic” Haneke, other than the stark production design and precise compositions — ten points to ace cinematographer Darius Khondji — were the hints that love is as much a corrupting influence on a person as it is a thing of wonder.
There were merely flashes of this, enough that I picked up on it but only in the sense that it gave me a misleading idea of where Haneke was going to take us. It ends with a shocking act that made me gasp, but even that didn’t cut to the core of me. Of course that’s not to say that the film ends with a decisive act that must affect all who see it, but consider this: I’m very very very very very very sensitive to tales of the inevitable unhappy resolution to even the longest-lasting relationships. There are two things that will make me cry within an instant of reflecting on them; animals being unaware of the deaths of their owners and searching / waiting for them (I refuse to watch Hachi: A Dog’s Tale), and the emotional devastation caused by the loss of a long-loved partner. I can’t listen to The Luckiest by Ben Folds, or I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab For Cutie without instantly breaking down.
You can imagine what the opening scene of Up did to me. I cried like I was suffering a seizure. However, when trying to figure out why Amour failed to do anything other than hold my attention for two hours (oh how disappointing, I was riveted by a film but didn’t have a nervous breakdown midway through, it must have been TERRIBLE), it was Up that I returned to. That did as good a job as Amour of giving us a window into a realistic relationship, of making us feel like we had a good idea of how much these characters loved each other, to the point that we want nothing more than for them to prevail, with bonus points to Up for doing so in such a short space of time. It’s a rare thing to be able to convey that depth of emotion compellingly and believably, so full marks to both movies for that.
And yet I’d take Up over Amour any day of the week, and not just because Pete Docter’s movie features far more talking dogs, chattery birds and zeppelins piloted by an evil amalgam of Kirk Douglas and Christopher Plummer than Haneke’s movie (though Amour does have a Pigeon Of Great Metaphorical Significance, which counts for something). The key difference, of course, is that the tragic death of a loved one is the inciting incident in Up, and the culmination of a film’s worth of slow, grinding pain in Amour. Which is fine. Both stories are perfectly valid, and both Docter and Haneke deserve all the critical plaudits they have received for their incredible work in these movies. No wonder audiences react so strongly to both stories, when they’re told with such skill.
But only one made me feel alive, made me run through a spectrum of emotions both good and bad, and told a story that chimed with me, and that’s the one with the balloons. Because no matter how skillful Haneke was, no matter how intelligent his approach, his story is basically “In a relationship in which two people love each other a lot, and one gets ill, the other will have to make a terrible sacrifice to bring peace to both of them.” Which is a good story, and done without flinching, even when it comes to its wrenching denouement. But Up‘s story is “Even the most awful ending can be the beginning of something wonderful”. More sentimental? Maybe so, though I think Docter does a damn good job in subverting easy emotional uplift, avoiding any kind of gloopy manipulation and creating something admirably level-headed, and more importantly this message is just as valid as the other one. Docter isn’t lying to the audience; he’s doing them a favour in pointing this out in vibrant, emotionally-honest style.
However I’m not going to find Haneke’s downbeat story anywhere near as compelling as Docter’s because I run through the bad scenario in my head literally every day, sometimes over and over again. I hear people hail Haneke’s courage in tackling this story in such a full-on way, that he is a brave soul for looking at our inevitably miserable and tortured final days with confidence, and yeah, compared to the rest of the output of all the film industries in the world, he’s achieved a minor miracle in getting it made and holding to his vision, with all of the ugliness and wonder and even more ugliness that is necessary to maintain his point’s integrity. But in the case of adding new thoughts to my head, this didn’t do it. I agonise over this scenario. I constantly have multiple panic attacks over it, day in and day out, and have done for decades. Seeing Amour was like returning to the office five minutes after I clocked off, and so all I experienced was a movie that told me, “you’re right, your life is going to end and end badly. You’re right to panic about it.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big boy. I know that life is a mix of wonder and horror. I can look at it and recognise it and occasionally even expand my awareness of it enough to feel a soul-deadening sense of paralysing existential dread all on my own, and when a work of art approaches that kind of terrifying power I can embrace it, even absorb it whole and keep it within me. I’m not afraid of that, and I don’t need fluffy palliative art to make the pain go away (well, okay, I do very occasionally, but most of the time I’m cool). But Up‘s message, that in life there are multiple endings and as many beginnings, that there is an alternative to the terror of oblivion, that there are enough years to find new wonders; that’s not something that I think very often. Up made me happy to be alive. Amour didn’t even tell me anything I didn’t already know. It just told me an obvious truth; a truth beautifully and sensitively rendered, but still a truth that I experienced with a shrug of bored recognition.
So basically I’m massively jaded. And I’m sure it could be said that loving Up‘s positive message over Amour‘s negative one is evidence that I am looking for solace. Fine, okay. But I’ll always respond to tales of the fight against nothingness (Up, The Grey) or the existence of some form of continuity of existence (Cloud Atlas, Enter The Void) with gratitude, because I’m under no illusion that horrible things await me. However, I’d argue that to start in a place of grieving terror at the worthlessness of it all and still tell a story offering a hope that’s smartly delivered, that’s not the easy consolatory message of Hallmark-level entertainment, that can look the horror of existence full in the face and still say, “I don’t think so, buster,” is actually harder to pull off than to just wallow in misery, even when the level of artistry involved in doing so is of such a high standard. In other words, while you’re crying at the incredible performances by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintingnant, I’ll be over here watching Liam Neeson taping broken bottles to his knuckles, thanks.
Film I Never Ever Ever Want To Fucking Talk About Ever Again: Prometheus
While Amour has generated very little in the way of debate — I’ve only seen one or two other people online who were similarly less-than-amazed by Haneke’s film — other movies have created a firestorm of passionate discourse. None moreso than Sir Ridley of Scott’s Prometheus, which was bafflingly expected to be some kind of sci-fi masterpiece right out of the gate, if some speculation was to be believed. The reaction against it was swift and unpleasant, meaning I couldn’t help but see it through a lens of expectation; will this really be the most appalling insult to the hearts and souls of the nerd culture that I have heard it is? My initial feelings were inevitably reactive, leading to this epic post which, I have to say, was the best thing to come out of watching Prometheus. It has led to me meeting and talking to a lot of very cool people, for which I’m eternally grateful.
There is inevitably a downside to this. In the weeks after Prometheus was released, online opinion seemed to become set in stone, with an overwhelming majority of people coming out in frothing hatred, while we few, we happy few, we band of brothers who admitted it wasn’t perfect but was worthy of attention beyond the relentless derision it inspired… well, we fought our corner as best we could, but all this did was ossify opinion on either side, leading to endless pointless arguments in which “mistakes” in the film were cited without reflection — as I said in my review, many of the things listed as errors are thematically consistent; thankfully I’ve seen a few others pick up on this as well– and those of us willing to give it a chance are dismissed outright.
Boo hoo, right? Poor Admiral Neck done got into an argument or two. Well, yes, but that’s not the problem. The discussions I’ve had about it have been, for the most part, quite civil and jocular; in fact as I write this another one has sprung up on Twitter. It’s been going on for about 9 hours now, meaning this post — which should have been finished this morning — is only now being completed, hours after I left in despair. Now, I’m extremely fond of all of the people involved in this discussion, and all of the other discussions I’ve participated in, so I’m not referring to any well-liked friends-of-the-blog when I say this, but after nearly seven months of seeing Prometheus referred to by numerous unknown film fans as an absolutely, undeniably, transparently awful and disastrous failure and Exhibit A in the case against the quality of cinema in 2012, I must declare BASTA! ENOUGH! I DON’T WANT TO ARGUE ABOUT PROMETHEUS EVER A-FUCKING-GAIN!
What broke me? I can’t pinpoint the moment, but I know I lasted longer than Anne Billson, who tweeted a while back that she was done with the relentless negativity about it, especially as she had quite liked it, again with the reservations we all had. I feel much the same way, finding myself constantly on the defensive about a film I think was merely okay. This is the crux of my problem, and why I’ve found myself as annoyed as I seem to be about this and not, say, The Dark Knight Rises or Django Unchained or Zero Dark Thirty, all films which have generated a ton of online conjecture, some of which I agree with and some of which I think misses various important points. The problem with Prometheus is that those who dislike it think it’s not just flawed but actually moronic and genuinely, indefensibly awful, and so to praise it for any reason is to seem similarly stupid.
You can see why this is a problem. Prometheus has generated a tidal wave of disgusted opprobrium from a large percentage of the people who watched it, more so than any other film I can think of this year, and that’s a consequence of its origins as a “prequel” to one of the most beloved film franchises of all time, made by the man who started it off. Unlike any other franchise this year, its success or failure would inevitably be compared to the success of the original Alien, a film that helped change the way films were conceived and made, a cultural artifact of immeasurable influence and importance. If Prometheus wasn’t 2001 x Dark Star x Halloween x Star Wars it was pretty much fucked, and when we got a bit of a misfire with some unexpected narrative choices, a lot of people turned their backs on it without a second thought. This wasn’t just a movie that was arguably good or bad; this was the worst and most catastrophic failure in the history of popular cinema, proof that classical filmmaking was gone forever, the nail in the coffin of an entire cinematic genre. Pack up your things, sci-fi. George Lucas stabbed you in the back and Ridley Scott finished you off.
Except it’s not anywhere near that bad, and I reckon those of us who have rallied around it are just trying to say look, give it another chance. There are things that can be salvaged from this movie if you’ll just let us explain why we think it has some interesting ideas. The last seven months has taught me that this is a fool’s errand, and the biggest casualty here won’t be the hours wasted in trying to make a case for this movie as Not As Stupid As Alien Vs. Predator (a truly worthless, franchise-ruining calamity of a film that generated a fraction of the loathing that Prometheus did, amazingly enough). The casualty will be the online reputations of those who dare to speak up. Admittedly this is not that big a deal, but all we have online is our reputation, and if you acquire the stink of worthlessness or cluelessness, it follows you around.
If the first thing you hear from me is that I quite liked Prometheus, and you hate it as much as many seem to, then you’re going to think that there’s something wrong with my brain. Among a significant proportion of the online film fan community, there is NO DOUBT that Prometheus is Plan 9-level awful, and to say that it has any kind of merit is not to have spotted a wrinkle that some might have missed, or to have a viewpoint that might shed positive light on choices made by the filmmakers that seem to be risible, but is evidence of a failure of critical thinking, or that one is ignorant of film lore; an unfortunate trend in a lot of online criticism recently which suggests that contravention of some unspoken set of artistic rules is enough to consign a movie to The Hell Of A Million Snarky Jokes, and ignorance of such rules means you shouldn’t be allowed to even talk about such matters.
Disclaimer: I have a very strict policy of not allowing insulting comments to get onto the site, mostly because letting them through means I kinda have to engage with them or they’ll just sit there like I’ve accepted them as fact, and time and time again, especially in the case of contentious nerd-bait subjects like Prometheus, BSG or Lost there is very little chance that I’m going to find common ground with someone anonymously telling me to go fuck myself. I regret this now for many reasons, but mostly because I’d love to link to the amazing comment I got under that Prometheus review by someone so incensed by the existence of this film and my defence that he or she wrote something like 5000 words (or, more accurately, cut-and-pasted 5000 words from their own takedown of Prometheus), impolitely telling me I shouldn’t be allowed to talk about films. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this, and it’s not like I was upset. It was too ridiculous and hilariously unhinged to be offended by.
But I didn’t let it through because by that point, and doubly so now, I’ve found there is nothing to be gained by sticking up for Prometheus. And that made me think that there’s nothing to be gained by talking about films in any capacity. I’m talking about not engaging on Twitter, not reading any reviews even by people I admire, and certainly not writing about films on here. Not because one comment got to me, but because seven months of this circular, combative chatter, much of which was spent merely repeating obnoxious, petty criticisms instead of bringing anything new to the conversation, felt like 150 years of screaming war, and it wearied me so completely, and put me off engaging with strangers — and occasionally friends — so much, that the grand experiment of online discourse as a way to meet like-minded people seemed like it would ultimately prove to be a waste of time. I might have met some cool new people who have agreed with me, but eventually we’re just going to disagree on something else and if the Saga of Prometheus is any indication, these differences of opinion might prove to be insurmountable, and could well jeopardise our nascent friendship, just like the incessant quibbling over Prometheus‘ flaws has threatened to. It’s no coincidence that since writing that review, and meeting a ton of great new people, I’ve nevertheless considered quitting online interaction about once every two weeks.
So I’ve got a bad case of whiny butthurt. Poor me, I didn’t change the world with my groundbreaking views on a movie based on Erich Von Daniken’s own-brand daftness. Honestly I didn’t expect to, but if ever I felt a sense that this blog was a waste of time, it was this year. It’s not just Prometheus; it’s the whole damn thing. People breeze in and out of your online life, attracted by an RT from a friend but so disgusted by your apparent stupidity that they have to tell you this immediately, because to keep such an ultimately useless thought to oneself is unacceptable. A couple of times this year I’ve been RTd by celebrities (fortuitous and accidental events every time), and the result is random abuse from strangers who object to… fuck, I don’t know. Just things. And this is a fraction of what those celebrities experience every day. I can’t imagine what it would be like to endure that, because I despair at the slightest point-missing stupidity, and a sustained blast of that from dawn ’til dusk would make me throw my laptop onto a skip.
Maybe it’s just this one film. Maybe I can sacrifice it, just forget about it and think of it as the dangerous place on the map. Here Be Dragons, the forbidden land which holds only misery for those who trespass. Perhaps I can live with that. I don’t love Prometheus anywhere near as much as the many other derided genre films that I’ve tried to defend in the past, like Speed Racer or Enter The Void or John Carter. The problem here is that it’s never going to be just one film, that I can ringfence Prometheus but some other unexpectedly inflammatory opinion is going to come up again, and I’m going to have to face those fleeting disparagements. How offputting is the knowledge that by sticking my neck out this blog risks becoming a pariah within this community, the equivalent of the house on the street that the kids love to TP because the person who lives there is some unapproachable weirdo. Maybe I should just give it up altogether. Maybe I should, in the words of Corporal Hicks, nuke the site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure.
And yet… and yet…
Film That Might Just Show Me The Way To A Better Online Life: Looper
As I’ve said a number of times in my last ten or so posts, this year has been one of baffling frustration. A series of highly-anticipated films left me feeling disappointed and annoyed, emotions placed in stark contrast with the utterly uncomplicated joy provided by The Avengers, which was as pure a hit of euphoric pleasure as I’ve ever had in a cinema. Compared to that, the bursts of pleasure I anticipated from everything else has been stymied, and little has truly surprised me other than Wolf Children and a couple of others. Even genre films I thought would be slamdunks — The Raid, Dredd, Skyfall, The Hunger Games — were close-calls that would have made me happy any other year but, this time around, just didn’t slake my thirst for cinematic satisfaction.
Looper was the worst offender. Watching it on opening night was even more exasperating than my first viewing of Dredd or The Raid — why is this movie not sending me sky-rocketing into the air with joy? — and as infuriating as my first crack at Skyfall — not only did I miss the first few minutes because someone working at Odeon Swiss Cottage inexplicably and incorrectly told me the film was starting ten minutes after it actually began, but a woman sitting six rows behind us translated every line in the movie into Cantonese for her mother; Skyfall was ruined by sitting in a roomful of drunk and bored idiots with tiny bladders, not to mention kids who couldn’t figure out why there was so much talking instead of the shooting they’d been promised. Was this why I didn’t respond to Looper the same way everyone else did?
Over the last week I’ve been chatting with ace critic and all-round top chap Nathan Ditum about Looper, which he loves with a terrifying and persuasive intensity. This was the reaction I expected to have; I love the time travel genre like no other, it stars a number of my favourite actors (and Paul Dano), it’s made by an artist I think is touched by the hand of genius — my love of The Brothers Bloom often feels like a lonely cry in the wild — and who does things with the camera that no one else has even considered before & always, always pulls it off even though by all the laws of filmmaking he shouldn’t. He’s the anti-Tom Hooper, pretty much. All of this is why my grudging acceptance of the movie made me so annoyed.
Nathan gave me a passionate rundown of everything he thought Looper did right, and I responded by talking about the things that left me cold — mostly my frustrations with the way Rian Johnson keeps the mechanics of the time-travel rules unclear in order to give himself room to manoevre on an emotional level, and how this meant that the central conflict between the two Joes didn’t hit me as hard as it could have. Old Joe’s need to find and kill the Rainmaker only really works in the abstract, as his explanations of why this all-powerful and terrifying force is something to be feared made me wonder if maybe he was in the right. Of course this is a terrible thing to think, but if all we have to go on are the vague descriptions in Johnson’s script, all of which are done to keep the time travel conceit working, then it’s impossible to fully side with either Joe.
This wasn’t the only thing that bothered me; the drop in energy in the second half frustrated me, I found the child distracting and overwhelmingly horrible (thus skewing my feelings about his survival even more), and the inclusion of two disparate SF concepts in one film — time travel and telekinesis — felt clunky, a choice that felt like it was made only for the sake of adding spectacle and danger to the plot. If the emergence of TK had been linked to the beginning of the time loops, using even awful ST:TNG technobabble, I’d have bought it immediately. Merely adding TK so the film could have an Akira-esque telekinetic antagonist is not really that bad, but it felt like an arbitrary and pandering inclusion, instead of an essential element without which this fictional world would have collapsed.
All of these things could be filed under “nitpicking” (thanks to the ever-excellent Sam Binnie for giving me the heads-up on this Film Crit Hulk article), much like many of the criticisms leveled at Prometheus are almost comically trivial and tend only to be employed to bolster the argument that it is inherently worthless, but at least some of these criticisms feel like valid explanations for why I wasn’t as moved by Looper in the way I’d expected. The power of the story is blunted by these choices, especially the time travel rules one. I will happily admit I’m anal about time travel, thinking only Primer and Lost (and maybe Back To The Future 2) have told stories that adhere to believable time travel mechanics, and my hopes for Looper were raised sky-high when I heard Shane Carruth helped Johnson out.
And yet even if I drop my usual fixation on temporal, causal rigour, I still have to take an intellectual leap to swallow some of the motivations here. I don’t feel Old Joe’s pain in my gut; I have to use maths to get there, and this is going to take me out of the film no matter how good Bruce Willis is at depicting the regret and sadness of the aging assassin. I was already thinking hard all the way through, constantly checking my reaction to the film to see if I was having a good time, and then analysing every element in the film to figure out why it wasn’t giving me the uplift I had expected. As I said to Nathan, I had hoped this would slip down like a cool drink of water on a hot day, but I ended up spilling most of it before I got the glass to my mouth.
There’s the rub. After this conversation (not included here because it was quite long and I don’t have Nathan’s permission), I’ve come to realise I am overthinking it, especially as we found much common-ground regarding the brilliant use of the two Joes to dramatise the generation gap, with young and impetuous Young Joe learning to grow and take responsibility after coming up against the mournful Old Joe who is willing to do awful things to save the things he has lost as a result of his earlier poor judgements. The nebulousness of Johnson’s time-travel rules irked me then, but the more I talked about it with Nathan (and others on Twitter and Letterboxd) have made me think I’m being too hard on it, that if I’d just rolled with it I would have experienced something of great power instead of finicky complication. That intellectual leap was unnecessary on the day; I should have had faith in Johnson.
In much the same way that everyone should have more faith in Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof. Both men were set up for a fall with Prometheus. Fans of Alien were sceptical of the old man’s abilities, even though in recent years he’s given us Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven, both of which are not the work of someone phoning it in. Former fans of Lost, or those who didn’t watch it and based their opinions on what they heard about the show from highly vocal people who didn’t like how it developed, need no help in hating Lindelof, and any similarities between the Island-set fantasy and this sci-fi epic were bound to be taken as proof of his incompetence. As I argued in that original post, there are a number of significant overlapping themes, and they’re the ones that viewers of Lost didn’t respond to, so Prometheus didn’t stand a chance.
But if I’m going to argue that people should give Prometheus a chance, I have to be willing to do the same thing with one of the nerd kingdom’s causes célèbres, even if I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept the make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or like that goddamn kid, or swallow moments that probably sounded great on paper but don’t work onscreen like Young Joe escaping death by shooting the floor to create a huge obscuring cloud of dust. I’m going to try Looper again, and I’m going to… well, not exactly turn my brain off, because that’s an insult to Johnson, who is obviously not trying to create some no-brainer here. But I’ll dial down my reservations, try to meet him halfway, because he deserves a second-chance as much as Scott and Lindelof do.
As for my ongoing internal debate about whether or not it’s worth my while to stay online, Nathan pretty much settled that one for me. There will come many a time when someone smart, with interesting views and something to add to a conversation, will wander past this blog or see me talking to someone on Twitter, and in a moment of unfortunate impulse tell me that I really should just go fuck myself. And that’ll be a shame. And a rare occurrence. More often it’ll be someone I’ll never really like, and they can go with whatever God they believe in. Because the important thing is that I’ve met many more people who are worth the effort to stay here, and even if they end up being the only people I meet here, then that’s a goddamn great thing, and these differences of opinion on Prometheus or Looper or anything else are no biggie, and can even, if this discussion about Looper is anything to go by, end up altering my viewpoint for the better. And that’s another point in the plus column for Looper.
Good news! Only one post left to go in Listmania!, and it’s the stupid one that won’t get bogged down in introspection. Now all I have to do is find 18883 photos on IMDb.